Though the observance of the 70th anniversary of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki passed some three weeks ago, the event has continued to garner reflection and debate. In his recent “Truman Was Right to Use the Bomb on Japan”, Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen presented a straightforward justification for the attacks and the case against the United States issuing a formal apology. It’s a difficult theme to be sure, but all the while, though he is trenchant, he is never glib, and he’s careful to acknowledge the horror that engulfed the victims. One ought to detect in this an important point: it is not necessarily inconsistent to be sorry even as one ought not to say sorry. Augustine taught us that sorrow can, indeed ought, accompany the prosecution even of just wars; for wars are fought well when they are fought with compassion for the enemy – even as we close with and kill them; with reluctance – after it’s clear nothing else can reestablish justice, order, and peace; and with remorse – that it all had to come to this in the first place. So one can be sorry even when one is not guilty.
That said, Cohen makes a conceptual stumble in his closing paragraph. In it, and against those who say the bomb ought not to have dropped, he wonders what Truman could possibly have said to Americans who lost a loved one in an invasion of the Japanese homeland that he failed to forestall by not using a weapon at his disposal and thereby ending the war. What would he have said to the American dead? Cohen conjectures that to say “I chose Japanese lives over yours” would not have sufficed. Cohen’s point is rhetorically powerful, certainly. But it’s just not as simple as that.
There is, of course, an obligation incumbent upon the state to protect one’s own military personnel. The military ethicist Martin Cook referred to this as “the implicit moral contract between the nation and its soldiers.” Cook meant something more than the merely legal contract in which pay and benefits are spelled out; he meant that kind of constructed social contract in which is articulated the relationship and attendant responsibilities between the contracting parties. The terms of these responsibilities make plain that military personnel live in a unique moral world:
They exist to serve the state. The essence and moral core of their service is to defend that state through the management and application of violence in defense of the territorial integrity, political sovereignty and vital national interests of that state. Their contract has an “unlimited liability” clause – they accept … the obligation to put their lives at grave risk when ordered to do so.
In return, the state owes warfighters the confidence of knowing they will be called upon for only morally legitimate and weighty causes and with the implicit promise that the circumstances under which they are being called to risk death are such that the defense of vital human goods, the sovereignty and integrity of the nation or the careful extension of its national interests truly requires their action. With this in view, then, Cohen’s rhetoric is not only powerful but also cogent. This is not, however, the only thing that ought to be in view.
For at the same time as warfighters risks their own lives, they obviously imperil the lives of others as well. However much the end of war (under Augustinian terms) is peace, this good end is most typically achieved in combat through the problematic means of killing our enemy-neighbors. Compounding the problem – and often pulling in the opposite direction – there is a responsibility toward noncombatants, codified in both the just war tradition and the laws of war as the principle of discrimination. Achieving the right balance between these often-conflicting norms of force protection, mission and noncombatant immunity can be extremely difficult. I want to make it even more so.
Many readers are familiar with the concept of “moral injury” as a form of combat trauma emerging from perpetrating, failing to prevent or bearing witness to acts that transgress deeply held normative beliefs. As would be expected, both the committing of atrocity as well as the accidental killing of noncombatants are common predictors of moral injury. Moreover, there is clinical evidence establishing moral injury as a, even the chief predictor of suicide among combat veterans. In light of moral injury, when trying to achieve that balance between force protection and noncombatant immunity, it is crucial to not so dial back discrimination in deference to force protection that we increase the likelihood of war fighters committing morally injurious actions. Our appropriate commitment to keeping our fighters safe may well mean that we expose them to greater physical threat in order to protect them psychically. In fact, moral injury suggests that these can ultimately mean the same thing. Thus, we must up-armor our war fighters – and not just in body: they must have Kevlar for their souls as well.
This connects with Cohen’s essay not because I believe dropping the bomb was morally injurious – for all the reasons Cohen explained, and for others, I have argued elsewhere that it was not. But to leave the impression that Truman was right to drop the bomb simply because he weighed American lives over Japanese is morally inadequate. For instance, it provides no compulsion for a combat planner to choose equally mission effective alternatives that would result in fewer non-combatant casualties over a strategy that would result in significant ones. One need only reflect on the NATO campaign over Kosovo to see the upshot of this. There, despite the rhetorical emphasis on precision targeting aimed at minimizing civilian casualties such precision was hamstrung by not allowing coalition aircraft to operate at lower (and more risky) altitudes. Thus, the idealistic humanitarian intentions were scuttled by a commitment to force protection to a degree that restricted effective tactics able to end atrocities and promoted tactics that likely heightened the misery of the very people we were trying to help in the first place.
This in turn points toward the American public’s (understandable) appetite for what Cook termed “immaculate war” – wars cleansed of any significant U.S. casualties. Political decision-makers, thinking far too much of the next referendum, are predisposed to give their voters what they want. When it comes to our longing for war-without-costs, this is an unrealistic expectation that must not be fed, even inadvertently. Counterfactually, if circumstances were such that it was clear to U.S. decision-makers that invading the Japanese homeland was morally superior, and equally mission effective, to dropping the bomb then invade we must. In our own day, when circumstances allow for American warfighters to, say, clear a building room-by-room rather than by simply leveling it then clearing that building room-by-room is what we must do – not just in deference to the welfare of noncombatants but as a recognition of our commitment to our own warfighters and the care of their souls. In my experience, warfighters are ready to do this: they do not unduly fear their lives being spent, only wasted.
If we have done our moral reckoning correctly, when a mother of the fallen or the ghosts of the dead themselves ask us why we took a riskier path, we can tell them – in all integrity – that we chose that method for their own good. This is not a question of picking one set of lives over another. It is a weighing of why particular lives are vying against one another in the first place. It is about ordering our war fighters to fight their wars in ways that they look themselves in the mirror the following morning. It is a means of helping our war fighters endure the morally bruising environment of combat without themselves becoming morally bruised.